“You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin” (Hebrews 12:4).
Those of you who have been reading my blogs for a long time know that I often liken the spiritual life to gardening. We have to take care of our soul, the garden of our thoughts. When we care for our soul, our actions are more likely to be grace-filled and less likely to be dominated by the passions. Or as Jesus put it, “A good tree produces good fruit.” Another version of this same idea is this: “Clean the inside of the cup or the dish, and the outside will be clean also.”
Most of the time, caring for our inner garden is more a matter of attention than of effort. The weeds of sinful and passionate thoughts can be pulled out pretty easily by merely recognizing them as sinful and turning your attention to Christ in prayer. The Jesus Prayer is probably the most common, or at least the most famous, form of prayer used by Orthodox Christians to turn their attention to Christ and away from sinful thoughts.
However, sometimes the weeds get out of control. Sometimes weeds grow in the back corners of our garden where we don’t pay a lot of attention—until it is too late. Suddenly we realize that a pattern of thought that we had not looked at very carefully turns out to be harbouring some pretty nasty sinful passions.
A good example of this in my life is politics. Like many people, I care about my country and its politics. Consequently I like to keep up on what’s happening in parliament (and, since I’m a dual citizen, what’s happening south the the Line, too). And keeping up on things leads quite naturally (it seems to me) to having opinions—about which I want to say clearly that to have political opinions is not a sin nor a passion nor necessarily wrong in any way. However, in me, I find that political opinions quickly tap into my passions and often hide the growing weeds of passions in my heart.
And unfortunately, I usually don’t recognize how great a weed bush of passion had grown under the cover of mere political opinions until my opinions become a cover blinding me from how I am dehumanizing or belittling or just not sincerely listening to someone because their opinions are different from mine. It seems that for me, being right trumps being loving; or at least that is what my passions manifest. It is like a terribly large bank of briers growing unnoticed in a corner of my garden, the garden of my soul.
I own a small acreage that is mostly swamp. Wild birds love it. Our house, yard and garden are on one acre, and the rest is like a private bird refuge. I planted native trees around the edges of the property, but because it’s not very easy to get to the back side of the property, I check on them only a couple times a year. Well this year, because we had a wet spring and summer, many of my trees were covered by blackberry vines—the kind with very large and sharp thorns.
It took me several days to cut back these vines, and they made me pay for it in blood (see picture). As I worked, I just couldn’t help thinking of the verse from Hebrews about striving against sin unto bloodshed, and how my passions sometimes require quite an effort to get under control.
Some passions are like addictions, and they cause actual physical pain and certainly intense psychological pain when you resist them. A person addicted to pornography will indeed experience an intense burning sensation just walking away from the computer. This person might have to shout the Jesus Prayer for quite a while before he/she can get his/her mind back (I recommend walking and shouting the Prayer, if you have a lonely place to walk, otherwise driving and shouting works almost as well). Sometimes it feels like we are being shredded by merciless thorns when we force ourselves to say no to ourselves.
Similarly, in loving our enemy, our political enemy, we may feel like we are dying on the inside. It takes supreme effort to remind myself that my enemy is no more blind than I am. My enemy is not a demon nor a fool. My enemy sees through a dim mirror just as I do; and if I had the same experiences and the same influences in my life, I would probably see things just as my enemy does. We are not very different, my enemy and I.
In a peaceful moment, I can see this. But in the heat of passion it is like fighting a huge thorn bush. It hurts; it cuts; it doesn’t want to admit that being right isn’t the most important thing. It doesn’t want to admit that none of us know really what the best way forward is. It doesn’t want to admit that if we would just listen to one another with a bit of generosity, we would probably find some workable compromises. But compromise hurts. It means that I have to give up some of what I think is important. It means that I have to admit that love is more important than being right.
The bloodshed of our striving against sin is real. We might not always see the blood, as a gardener fighting a briar patch does; but blood nonetheless flows in our inner being. The pain is real. But that is the very pain we have to be willing to bear if we are going to take our struggle against sin seriously. Thankfully, most of the time, our inner garden can be cared for with just a little regular spiritual discipline. But occasionally the passions grow out of control in unexpected corners of our gardens, and when we become aware of them, it’s time to get out the machete and go to work. Yes, it will hurt a bit and there will be blood, but the weeds of passion will not go away if you ignore them. The weeds win if you let them. Love grows cold if you let it.